Picasso famously said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” For Picasso art was a way of life that was to lead to culmination in enlightenment, both of himself and others. Today, the Western world is full of part-time painters, most of whom either have little to say or are not adept at saying it. Art as a means of portrayal yielded at the beginning of the 20th century to art as a means of expression. Currently, it seems as if it has yielded once again to art as a need for work-life balance.
Of course there is nothing wrong with doing things you enjoy in your spare time, but should everyone who paints or writes as a “hobby” also seek an audience: need the inner search necessarily become an outer one? Many a painter would have gone unnoticed if not for their personal biography. Who they are lends their work historical importance and they are hung in public places for who they are rather than what they produce. An example of such a painter is George Bush whose work was hung in the George Bush Presidential Library.
Bush was a President, so it is undeniable that his paintings possess historical value as, for example, George Washington’s false teeth also do. And though I personally believe that Washington’s teeth have more bite to them, these paintings have more potential to inflict damage.
It is terribly sad when human art amounts to no more than the political allegiances and personal insecurities of the artist. In his article in The Guardian, Saturday 5 April 2014, Jason Farago states:
“Their vacancy, their stubborn refusal to offer anything beyond the most basic signal of a famous person’s identity, is precisely what Bush will have wanted. […] Nothing is at stake here. It is futile to gaze at these paintings and discover anything of importance […] both the painting and the policy reflect a man untroubled by outside judgment, certain beyond any doubt of his rectitude and self-worth”.
I agree with most of what Farago has to say, though I have to disagree on one point. It is admittedly difficult to read clear signs from non-abstract work. Abstract forms yield more psychological leads (shapes, colours, line work) than attempts to portray the real world do. Authentic portrayal of the real world as the artist sees it is something that the artist can easily modify on the surface. So the (probable) fact that Bush painted his pictures using Wikipedia images as copy material—despite having had access to the world leaders he portrayed—already tells us something about him. I was previously inclined to think it was a lack of personal engagement in situations in which he is personally involved, but now I think it might also be a real attempt at diplomacy. Of course I cannot know how intentional this “President’s Personal Diplomacy” (the name of the exhibition) was: a diplomacy of restraint, of withholding the self-portrait that is evident in each of these works. The former President’s attitudes towards the portrayed world leaders are clear, despite all attempts he has obviously made to remove every last trace of himself from the works.
A quick comparison of the Putin portrait with that of Merkel yields quite obvious insight into allegiances that we already know of, but their extent becomes clear. As Farago points out (and here I agree) it is very difficult to say anything about paintings from web images without seeing the originals. But these originals, with their flat colours and sparse use of paint will hardly offer much more than the internet will, though a closer look at the brush work is rendered impossible by the pixilation. So having really only colour and form to go on, what can we see?
The effect of the painting of Merkel seems very different from a distance than it does up close. Several photographers have captured an apparent light blue shimmer around the Chancellor’s eyes, similar to the colour of the eyes themselves, an effect that can hardly be seen when viewing a close-up detail of the painting—in some ways quite clever. Bush’s idealistic image of the German Chancellor becomes apparent. One eyebrow raised almost coquette; an effect emphasized by the white stripe above the eye, giving it an almost saintly touch. The other eye is calculating but warm. The colours, sienna shades, in the face, the (badly-painted) hair of light umber and the honest wrinkles, offer more scope for form and contrast than the slightly more fleshy, uniform red of the original chancellor portrait (see Wikipedia site). This lends the Chancellor an earthy, practical aura.
By increasing the contrast we can see how the shades have been distributed very much in line with Merkel’s features, indicating that Bush does have some skill as a draughtsman. The shadows and wrinkles around the eyes of the chancellor have a similar blue to that of the eyes themselves. This lends the eyes a glowing effect and renders the painting more youthful from a distance. The slightly asymmetric eyes remind me of old portraits of Jesus. It was common practice to paint Christ with a squint eye to lend an air of innocence to the face. Though there is no squint here, the asymmetry emulates the same effect somewhat.
The portrait of Putin also gives particular attention to the eyes, again, when viewed from a distance. The Russian President is reduced to a phantom, a parlour spook in burnt bureaucratic umber shades marked by large surfaces of shadow in the middle of the painting, separated sharply from the light of the forehead (almost a roman helmet) plunging down over the nose into deep, threatening spacious pools which deny specific form to the boneless cheeks. The mouth is lost from a distance and the unnatural turn of the head at the bottom left of the picture makes me wonder if Bush was indecisive about which photograph to use. I would not claim that the picture was painted from two images rather than one, but the influence of other images may have haunted him. A darkening of the image (see below left) reveals asymmetry, but a less thoughtful asymmetry than that to be seen in the Merkel portrait. I point out once again that Bush does have skill as a drughtsman, so I have to ask myself whether it was a conscious decision not to use this skill here: was the distortion of the Russian President’s face deliberate? The contrasts between light and dark are stark and have little to do with the features of the Russian President. Only the eyes are symmetrically placed, yet one looms threateningly closer than the other, whilst the other observes coldly from the depths. Did George W. Bush ever really look into Putin’s eyes? If he did, did he really see the man’s soul or only the colour of the eyes which seems reasonably accurate.
Finally a glance at the former president’s self-portrait. The strong chin is not is not necessarily something I would have associated with George W. Bush. But Bush’s presidency was marked by heroic poses. Bush’s paintings reveal that he is not the originator of a political ideology. At best, they reveal him to be the product of one.